Fishing for sustainable seafood

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

Step away from the shrimp cocktail and the smoked salmon spread. Even fisheries that sell products stamped with the seal of approval from the Marine Stewardship Council, an international nonprofit that promotes solutions to overfishing and certifies fisheries and seafood products as sustainable or environmentally friendly, have been the source of some oceanic nightmares.

Earlier this year, Trident Seafoods Corporation, which produces pollock, salmon, herring, cod and crab, agreed to pay a $2.5 million fine to resolve Clean Water Act violations near its Alaska processing plants, and Trident products are still sold with the Marine Stewardship Council sustainable seafood seal.

Over the course of five years, the Environmental Protection Agency notified Trident of its violations in a series of letters, and  received replies that ranged from no response to  agreements to comply — which were not followed, according to Tara Martich, compliance officer for the EPA’s national pollutant discharge  elimination system. The company was cited with  480 Clean Water Act violations at 14 processing plants, according to the EPA. Trident discharged the waste from processing fish fillets without permits, exceeded discharge limits, failed to comply with permit restrictions on discharge locations (dis- charging near two National Wildlife Refuges) and cre- ated oxygen-depleting zones and underwater piles of waste at its facilities in Akutan, Cordova, St. Paul and Ketchikan, Alaska.

The result at Akutan is a 50-acre dead zone.

“It’s equivalent to almost 38 football fields,” Martich says. “It’s this carpet of gelatinous goo, and it suffocates the sea life on the sea floor, so it creates these dead zones.”

In the ocean ecosystem, the sea floor is home to the bottom of the food chain. When those species suffocate, it kills everything on up the line.

Akutan’s pile is the thickest.

“Part of the waste pile has been around for years, decades, or longer,” Martich says. “It ranges from possibly 10 to 15 feet thick. The historic waste pile, as we understand it, is about eight acres in size, and the rest of the 50 acres is much thinner, it almost pancakes out into this thin layer all around that eight acres.”

Savvy consumers take the credit for much of the reform in the fishing industry, according to Kelly Roebuck, sustainable seafood campaign manager for the Living Oceans Society.

“In the past five years we have seen the retailers and major buyers really pick up the issue and start to respond,” Roebuck says. “Back in 2008, only three retailers in North America had sustainable seafood policies. Now all but a few don’t.”

Consumers shopping and dining at restaurants with tools like the Monterey Bay Aquarium wallet guide or app for iPhone and Android, which provides region- specific advice on best choices, alternatives and seafood products to avoid, has helped enforce the power of the pocketbook in changing the retailers. Both Kroger and Safeway foods have a sustainable seafood plan shared with the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, a group of 16 conservation organizations promoting  healthier oceans and freshwater ecosystems.

“We’ve seen awareness of sustainable seafood and fishing and aquaculture issues really become just a broad awareness in the consumer community,” Roebuck says. “When people are shopping, they’re more aware than what they would have been 10 years ago for sure.

“And we can see that the retailers have taken notice and now there’s a lot of collaboration between environmental NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and retailers, and we’ve really seen that there are movements and progress happening with major buyers in North America.”

Because there are so many nuances to know, Roebuck says, it’s hard to apply one rule to all occasions. With some fish, like shellfish, fish farms are the best, or even the only, option.

“It really depends again from fishery to fishery,” Roebuck says. “Typically lower on the chain means they are a more resilient species so they’re quicker to mature and they reproduce in larger numbers.”

Smaller fish, including squid, oysters, mackerel, sardines and mussels, are more plentiful and contain less mercury, according to the National Resources Defense Council, which recommends eating those species over larger, less plentiful ones.

And, keep watching for changes. Part of Trident’s agreement with the EPA was to spend $30 million updating its fish processing facilities so that fish waste currently going to the ocean floor can be converted to fishmeal, which could reduce fish processing discharge by more than 105 million pounds each year. At least one of the two plants is expected to be operational by 2015.

“We’re really excited about all of those changes,” Martich says. “We hope that as Trident moves forward implementing these changes to their practices, it will help other processors make changes as well, and as a whole just really improve the compliance level of the whole industry.”